"You today, us tomorrow," said a British seaman aboard the Dorsetshire as he hauled from the cold North Atlantic an exhausted, oil-soaked German officer, one of only 115 men out of 2,200 to survive the Gotterdammerung at sea of the great battleship Bismarck.
Only four days earlier, the most powerful ship of her day had reached a pinnacle of glory. On her very first, (and last) mission, she blew the pride of the British fleet out of the water after just sx minutes of firing. The Hood, the world's second-greatest warship, went down so fast there were only three survivors. It was a stunning victory that enraged the British and prompted one of the greatest sea hunts in the history of naval warfare.
Baron Burkard von Mullenheim-Rechberg -- that rescued German officer who is the first to tell the inside stor y of the violent end of the monster ship in "Battleship Bismarck -- A Survivors' Story" -- will remember the fates of the Bismarck and the Hood always. "The tomorrow of the Dorsetshire, it turned out, was not long in coming," he says. She was sunk by Japanese bombs less than a year later.
The Bismarck was headline news around the world in late May of 1941 as the Royal Navy sought to avenge the monumental loss of the Hood. Every British warship in the Atlantic was ordered to "find, and sink, the Bismarck." No less than four battleships, two cruisers, two aircraft carriers, three heavy cruisers, 10 light cruisers and 21 destroyers covered more than a million nautical square miles in the deadly pursuit.
Last night at a dinner at the U.S. Naval Academy Officer's Club in Annapolis hosted by the U.S. Naval Institute Press, his publisher, toasts were exchanged by former adversaries in war -- most of them retired admirals.
The baron seemed especially touched by a champagne toast to "Capt. Lindemann and his brave crew." It is obvious, after reading the book, that the baron believes that the fate of the Bismarck would have been quite different if Lindemann was in command.
Among those attending were former chiefs of naval operations, Admirals Arleigh Burke and Jerauld Wright; Vice Admiral William Paul Lawrence, Naval Academy superintendent; Capt. Edward Beach, author of "Run Silent, Run Deep"; and Mrs. Eleanor Dulles, sister of former secretary of state John Foster Dulles.
The small U.S. Naval Institute Press that publishes books about naval affairs considers this book an international publishing coup. Marketing chief Lillian Wray has been bubbling with excitement for months.
"It came in over the transom," said Wray. "We were speechless with delight." Publication date is Oct. 10, and it already is the main selection of the Military Book Club.
The only surviving Bismarck officer still alive, the baron was the senior surviving officer when the 51,000-ton, 823-foot-long ship sank in 12,000 feet of water. Now, 39 years later, the tall and thin German aristocrat uses his hands expressively to illustrate he great ship's movements; its 15-inch turret guns named Anton, Bruno, Caesar and Dora; the battering salvos from the British warships and the diving torpedo planes.
Wearing a gray suit, white shirt, and figured tie, his long legs gracefully crossed, the one-time lieutenant now has the look of a fleet admiral. Born into a traditionally military family, he entered the Weimar Republic's 15,000-man navy as a midshipman, and now here he was among young midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy.
A prisoner of war from 1941 to 1946, he joined the diplomatic service of the Federal Republic of Germany and retired in 1975 after several ambassadorships. Today he devotes his time to researching political and economic problems of African countries and gardens at his home near Munich, in Bavaria.
The hair is gone, except for around the sides, and the face is lined and wrinkled, as if he just stepped off a ships' bridge. His accent is clipped; his conversation sprinkled with german, but his tone is self-effacing, almost belittling. He calls himself "Old Dust Face." 'The Last Battle'
What was it like on that sparkling, sunlit day in May in the floating inferno that received 2,876 shells coming in at the rate of one every two seconds? "For one thing," he says, "we were too busy to panic. Here," and with that he picked up the 290-page, $15.95 book. "Turn to this, "The Last Battle.'"
The Bismarck was a heap of scrap metal all on fire. "The scene that lay before me was difficult to describe. It was chaos and desolation," he says, leaning forward, and searching into the past that spared him.
Men were running about inside the ship, trying to find a way out, he remembers. Exits were jammed by fallen steel, and the wounded were scattered about. Escaping fires, men vainly searched for shelter on deck, some of them falling through holes and back into the fire.
Forty-five minutes of relentless cannonading followed the silencing of Bismarck's guns and the task of the doctor's and corpsmen "became overwhelming as one action station after another was knocked out and the men who were no longer able to take part in the fight crowded into the battle dressing stations . . . . What they suffered," he wrote, "was the epitome of what observers in two British battleships prefer not to imagine: 'What the ship was like inside did not bear thinking of; her guns smashed, the ship full of fire, her people hurt; and surely all men are much the same when hurt. Pray God I may never know what those shells did as they exploded inside the hull.'" 'It's the Hood!'
Ironies pile upon ironies in this classic sea story. The Bismarck sailed on orders not to engage in skirmishes with other warships, but to sink British commerce, when the British ship Hood intercepted her off Iceland at dawn on May 24.
But already personality clashes were forming between Lindemann, the ship's skipper, and Fleet Admiral Gunther Lutjens, his superior who was on the bridge when the Hood opened fire. "Donnerwetter!" writes Mullenheim. "Certain that we would return the fire, I braced myself for 'Permission to Fire' and the thunder of our guns that would follow. Nothing happened. We in the after station looked at one another in bewilderment."
"One the telephone," recalls Mullenheim, "I heard [the first gunnery officer] shout, 'The Hood -- it's the Hood!' It was an unforgettable moment. There she was, the famous warship, once the largest in the world, that had been the 'terror' of so many of our war games. Two minutes had gone by since the British opened fire. Lindemann could restrain himself no longer and he was heard to mutter to himself, I will not let my ship be shot out from under my a--,' and gave the word, 'Permission to Fire!'"
"The sight I then saw is something I shall never forget," he writes. "At first the Hood was nowhere to be seen; in her place was a colossal pillar of black smoke reaching into the sky. Gradually, at the foot of the pillar, I made out the bow of the battle cruiser projecting something I could hardly believe: a flash of orange coming from her forward guns! Although her fighting days had ended, the Hood was firing a last salvo. I felt great respect for those men over there."
Thousands of tons of steel were hurled inot the air and more than 1,000 men died as the 48,000-ton Hood's 100 tons of gunpowder in an ammunition room exploded. The crew of the Bismarck looked at one another in disbelief and their shock gave away to jubilation.
Lutjens gave the order not to pursue the battleship Prince of Wales, badly damaged by the Bismarck's guns. There was an argument between the fleet admiral and Bismarck's captain, and the men found it absolutely incomprehensible that the pursuit was called off. Bismarck had received three 14-inch hits that ripped up several fuel tanks and caused 2,000 tons of seawater to flood the forecastle. Speed reduced, 3 degrees down by the bow, listing to port and with 1,000 tons of fuel inaccessible, Lutjens decide to make for port in western France. 'Victory or Death!'
It was the beginning of a chase that would end in a slow agonizing death for the Bismarck. The Hood had the best of it. Her end was swift.
Attacked by torpedo planes, Bismarck drove on as the British pulled their warships from convoy escorts to deploy against her. Lutjens gave a stirring salute to his men, but ended by saying, "For us seamen, the question now is victory or death!" The crew became dejected and began to wear unfastened life jackets. "The high morale that permeated the ship in the preceeding days was irretrievably lost," recalls Mullenheim. About an hour after Lutjens spoke, Lindemann came over the loudspeaker and said exactly the opposite to dispel the gloom.
There was a plan to rig a second "dummy" stack to make the Bismarck look like a British battleship with two stacks. The stack was fabricated but never used. Just before dawn on May 26 came an announcement from the bridge that boosted morale considerably, stating that by noon they would be in U-boat territory and within range of German aircraft. Meanwhile, the British had lost the Bismarck.
Just before noon, however, a Royal Air Force flying boat, secretly flying with an American officer aboard, broke through a cloud cover. Ensign Leonard B. Smith had found the Bismarck! The baron today wonders what might have happened if the dummy stack had been rigged. "It could have worked," he says.
An antique biplane called a "Swordfish" proved to be the undoing of the world's most modern ship. These planes carried one torpedo and had to fly at 75 knots and under 50 feet to deliver an attack. The Bismarck became "a fire-spitting mountain" when the planes dived. 'Journey to Golgotha'
Incapable of maneuvering after a rudder hit, he writes, "we crept towards the superior forces coming to destroy us -- a virtual journey to Golgotha."
The rudder hopelessly jammed, Lutjens dispatched a message to Hitler: "We will fight to the last in belief in you, my fuhrer, and in unshakable confidence in German victory." Hitler wired back: "All Germany is with you. What can be done, will be done. Your performance of duty will strengthen our people in the struggle for its destiny."
After the announcement that work on the rudder had ceased, the older men took it as a sentence of death. "Today," said one, "my wife will become a widow, but she doesn't know it." Later, permission was given for everyone to help himself to anything he wanted. That was the surest sign of all that the end had finally come. That, and Lindemann wearing an open life jacket.
"I had to look twice to believe," says the baron. "He seemed strangely detached from his surroundings. He saw me coming, but did not return my salute, which I held as I looked at him intently in the hope that he would say something. He did not say a word. He did not even glance at me. I was greatly disturbed and puzzled. After all, I had been his personal adjutant and the situation we were in seemed to me unusual enough to merit some remark. I would have given a great deal for a word from him, one that would have told me how he felt about what had happened. But there was only silence. . . ."
When the Bismarck was deeply down by her stern, her bow rearing steeply out of the water and her entire starboard side exposed to her keel, Lindemann was spotted by survivors in the water. He was standing on the wrecked forecastle in front of Turret Anton. "His messenger, a seaman, was with him. Soon, both men went forward and began climbing a steadily increasing slope. Lindemann's gestures showed that he was urging his companion to go overboard and save himself. The man refused and stayed with his commanding officer until they reached the jackstaff. Then Lindemann walked out on the starboard side of the stem which, though rising ever higher, was becoming more level as the ship lay over. There he stopped and raised his hand to his white cap, saluting as he and his ship slipped beneath the sea. Later a machinist noted "I always thought such things happened only in books, but I saw it with my own eyes."
After scuttling charges were set, men leaped from the starboard side and broke their necks on the keel. Other wounded men disappeared beneath the waves, and some shot themselves on deck. Mullenheim had jumped with 10 others, bobbing around in oily swells. "I was filled with the belief that someone would save us," he says. Death Sentence
After an hour, the Dorsetshire came alongside the 800 men. The British seamen threw lines over, a few of which had bowlines on the end. It was difficult to handle them because they were so slippery from the oil.
It would take a long time to get them on board this way, he thought, as he lost his grasp on the first attempt but made it on the second. Taken below, he was shocked to discover the Dorsetshire leaving, sentencing hundreds of men to death. Horrified, he asked the commander why he broke off the rescue. He replied that a U-boat had been reported and he could not endanger his ship any longer. "Just leave that to me," the commander said. "I'm older than you are and have been at sea longer. I'm a better judge."
Such a long time ago, mused the baron, now 70. "Such a long time ago," he said again, fingering the wristwatch he had worn when the ship went down.
Mullenheim notes that "it has been nearly 40 years that the Bismarck sank at 1039 on 27 May 1971. She lies . . . not very far out in the North Atlantic, and yet the distance of an eternity from the shores of France. The end of her brief career foreshadowed the passing of the battleship era, of which she was a technological triumph and upon which she and her brave, fallen crew left an indelible mark."